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Amateurs Are Trying Genetic Engineering At Home 245

Posted by timothy
from the another-way-to-define-parenting dept.
the_kanzure points out this AP story on amateur genetic engineering, excerpting: "The Apple computer was invented in a garage. Same with the Google search engine. Now, tinkerers are working at home with the basic building blocks of life itself. Using homemade lab equipment and the wealth of scientific knowledge available online, these hobbyists are trying to create new life forms through genetic engineering a field long dominated by Ph.D.s toiling in university and corporate laboratories." Reader resistant has a few ideas about how to use this sort of lab: "Personally, I'd like to whip up a reasonably long-lasting and durable paint made with dye based on squid genes that glows brightly enough to allow 'guide lines' to be daubed along hallway baseboards, powered by a very low trickle of electricity. Plus, a harmless glowing yogurt would make for a cool prank."
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Amateurs Are Trying Genetic Engineering At Home

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  • Is this legal? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by allaunjsilverfox2 (882195) on Thursday December 25, 2008 @03:13PM (#26231303) Homepage Journal
    I mean, I love the idea behind it. But isn't there regulation on doing this type of research?
  • Re:Laugh now, but (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday December 25, 2008 @03:28PM (#26231355)

    1) Create perfect woman in petri dish
    2) First /.'er to lose virginity ...
    5) Profit

    Sounds you just discovered the worlds second oldest profession.

  • Re:Is this legal? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Frosty Piss (770223) on Thursday December 25, 2008 @03:37PM (#26231393)

    I mean, I love the idea behind it. But isn't there regulation on doing this type of research?

    Do you think that DIY genetic engineering will be more harmful than that which is conducted for profit by companies that care only for making money?

  • Re:Is this legal? (Score:4, Insightful)

    by geek (5680) on Thursday December 25, 2008 @03:39PM (#26231397) Homepage

    Why would there be? It's not like they're creating super warriors in their garages.

    All the hysteria over genetic engineering is ridiculous. Quit trying to regulate everything.

  • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Thursday December 25, 2008 @03:46PM (#26231429) Journal
    Your point is valid, in that most garage startups fail. For that matter, most startups fail, and a nontrivial percentage of the activity of large enterprises also fails.

    However, it is still important to remember that some tiny garage startups do succeed, dramatically in certain cases. Obviously, being a garage startup isn't the golden road to riches; but garage startups, as a genre, are valuable. Particularly in our era of regulation, where concerns over liability, meth, terrorism, and whatever the fear of the moment happens to be, often lead to laws that assume that R&D only happens under the auspices of universities and corporations, and homes are just for consuming, this is important to keep in mind.

    That said, though, the economic argument is not the only, or even the most important, argument in favor of garage based tinkering. The onus is not on garage based tinkerers to prove that they are valuable. Tinkering is their right, unless it can be demonstrated to be an infringement on somebody else's rights.
  • by harlows_monkeys (106428) on Thursday December 25, 2008 @03:47PM (#26231435) Homepage

    The home genetic engineering project I would work on, if I were rich enough and smart enough, would be to take some MMORPG, such as WOW, and reify as many creatures from it as I could, and secretly release them into the wild, in enough numbers to establish breeding populations.

  • Terrorism (Score:5, Insightful)

    by nurb432 (527695) on Thursday December 25, 2008 @04:10PM (#26231553) Homepage Journal

    It will soon be banned, much as anything else remotely scientific at home is in the process of becoming.

    Next, just having the knowledge will get you on a watched list.

  • by rritterson (588983) on Thursday December 25, 2008 @04:18PM (#26231567)
    Normally I have to preface my posts with "I am not a XXXX, but". However, in this case, I actually am a molecular biologist deeply involved in the synthetic biology community. Here are a few thoughts:

    First, the amount of ignorance regarding genetic engineering and it's facets (such as GMO food) is astounding. Anecdotally, I've heard that a significant fraction of British folks polled said they would prefer DNA-free food. (Think about it until you realize the ridiculousness). People typically imagine we are trying to create hybrid organisms or bizarre clone armies or something, when it reality, it's just mixing DNA that encodes for a series of proteins you would find useful in combination. To make glow in the dark yogurt that responds to melamine would be fairly simple if you had the right set of genes: a melamine sensor that, when bound to melamine, binds to a specific DNA sequence (a promoter) that drives expression of a fluorescent protein such as green fluorescent protein ("GFP", a widely used fluorescent marker derived from a jellyfish). It's not difficult, and it's not unsafe. The vast majority of DNA and proteins are degraded rapidly in your stomache, so they are safe to eat (toxins, parasites, and infectious agents excluded).

    Second, people underestimate how difficult it is to accomplish something genetically. Yes, the circuit logic above is fairly simple. Unlike electrical circuits, though, where you can control electron flow with wires there is no such spatial regulation of biological parts. It's very stochastic. One has to tune the concentrations such that the melamine sensor will strongly bind to DNA at the concentrations of melamine likely to be in food, without prematurely activating and freaking people out, while also avoiding being sued because it didn't activate when it should have and someone died. Once you get the sensor right, you have to then tune the promoter so that you get expression of GFP the same way-- no leaky expression causing permanently green yogurt, but enough expression when activated such that you can see it. I can build a simple circuit to drive GFP in the presence of melamine, but getting it commercially relevant is extremely difficult.

    Finally, and most importantly, the regulations of these types of technologies are, well, 2 steps from insane. There are no regulations on the transport of DNA encoding some severe toxin, to list one example. Take botulism toxin: the DNA encoding it is well known, and short enough that one could order it directly from a DNA synthesis company. From there you can use PCR to make as many copies of it as you need. Then, put it in your bacterium of choice, produce a whole bunch, and purify it out. That entire process could be done with someone with basic college level biology and about $5k. Anybody can find the botulism toxin DNA on, say, NBCI (run by the NIH) and get to work. And there are NO regulations on any of the steps required to produce it. A person with practical experience could do it much faster. I could produce enough to kill my entire university, starting from scratch, in about 2 weeks, give or take, maybe faster

    A second example is the definition of 'natural' when it comes to food. Any chemical produced in a flask, chemically, is considered artificial, even if it's molecularly identical to the natural flavor molecule. On the other hand, any synthetic flavor produced by bacteria in a vat is considered natural, as long as the sugar used to feed the bacteria is also natural. The food industry is spending billions trying to engineer bacteria to produce flavors in large quantities, because the average person will think 'all natural' means healthier or better for me.

    A third example involves regulation of the types of bacteria used to produce flavors: if I randomly mutagenize bacteria with UV light until I find one I like, that's considered safe, even though I probably have no idea what mutations I've actually made. On the other hand, if I go in and, with ultra-precision, make a single, target
  • Re:Is this legal? (Score:2, Insightful)

    by TheRaven64 (641858) on Thursday December 25, 2008 @04:19PM (#26231569) Journal

    You also need a drivers license before driving a car

    I was under the impression you only needed a driver's license to drive on the public highway. I have no idea what the parallel for genetic engineering would be, perhaps you could serve me with a better car analogy?

  • Re:Hmm. (Score:5, Insightful)

    by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Thursday December 25, 2008 @04:32PM (#26231637) Journal
    Parent's groups concerned by the threat of the narcofood menace, a product of rogue genetic engineers aligned with a radical pro-legalization agenda, hailed the establishment of the new FDA SafeSeed(tm) program yesterday. Monsanto spokesman Mike Smith said 'We believe that Monsanto's line of CertifiedSafe(tm) seed and seed compliance solutions offers responsible producers a proven means to align with FDA SafeSeed(tm) regulations at the industry's lowest certification cost.'"

    They'd be happy to try, I'm sure.
  • Re:Is this legal? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by geek (5680) on Thursday December 25, 2008 @04:33PM (#26231639) Homepage

    That "super plant" is still subject to natural selection and would have to be selected for. Regardless, genetic engineering is not easy and doing so in your garage will only get you so far. Bacteria etc is doable, any multi-cell organisms will be quite difficult.

    Doing what these people are doing in their garages is no different from what nature does itself every day. If pollen went astray, it would still need to be selected for in some way. Even the genetically engineered crops we use today are "forced" to grow under special circumstances, most wouldn't survive without a crapload of human intervention.

  • Re:Is this legal? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by TubeSteak (669689) on Thursday December 25, 2008 @04:40PM (#26231683) Journal

    Do you think that DIY genetic engineering will be more harmful than that which is conducted for profit by companies that care only for making money?

    Not necessarily, but you are 100% assured that the safety controls involved will be vastly inferior.

    The only true genetically engineered mess to spread in the recent past, as far as I can recall, is GM vegetables. And that isn't at all what I mean by "safety controls".

  • by 4D6963 (933028) on Thursday December 25, 2008 @06:05PM (#26232105)

    I recall a lot of professional computer people saying these sorts of things about computers 35 and 40 years ago

    Yeah, whereas these days, anyone can have a processor manufacturing plant in their garage!

  • Re:Hmm. (Score:2, Insightful)

    by Pictish Prince (988570) <wenzbauer@gmail.com> on Thursday December 25, 2008 @08:04PM (#26232603) Journal

    ... Let them regulate the entire food chain.

    I think they're working on that.

  • Re:Hmm. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by philspear (1142299) on Thursday December 25, 2008 @10:42PM (#26233127)

    I also found it suspicious that the source was "Supposedly the SFC but can't seem to find it." And a google search for the prof turns up empty aside from those stories. And accomplishing this would lead to a publication in a respected plant journal, not a shady internet buisness.

    Moreover, I seriously doubt that the 4 step plan could be accomplished by one guy as a side project in 14 years without either eating up all the funds for whatever it was he was supposed to be researching. Some of the steps sounded like they would be nobel-prize winning projects by themselves, let alone the wholesale import of a complex system to another species. Note that I am not claiming to be a biochemist here, especially not a plant biochemist, and I am also of course unfamiliar with the specifics of THC production.

    * Step One:

    Biochemically isolate all the required enzymes for the production of THC.

    Considering we're still pulling out required enzymes for very basic things with much greater importance, including from organisms that are much easier to obtain than pot, this is a tall order. Some of my fellow students are working on purifying yeast enzymes. It's easy to get gallons of yeast, people have been doing it for centuries. Purification of proteins from yeast is not easy. Getting purified proteins from plants is likely even more difficult. Purifying proteins from a plant that is illegal, without a permit... that's got to be expensive at least. If he's doing it from his home, which he would likely have to be in order not to get FSU in trouble, there are even more problems.

    Once purified, you would also have to develop an assay to make sure that you've actually isolated all the required components. You wouldn't want to go through steps 2-4 until you're sure you actually have it. That, again, seems like a monumental task.

    It's unlikely but possible. Especially if there is just one gene needed for THC production, although if there were and it were discovered, it would be common knowledge by now, and it doesn't seem to be. Likely because it's not. And that makes sense, who is funding research into the biochemistry of THC production?

    The next steps are more feasible, although that's not saying much

    * Step Two:

                Perform N-terminal sequencing on isolated enzymes, design degenerate PCR (polymerase chain reaction) primers and amplify the genes.

    * Step Three:

                Clone genes into an agrobacterial vector by introducing the desired piece of DNA into a plasmid containing a transfer or T-DNA. The mixture is transformed into Agrobacterium tumefaciens, a gram negative bacterium.
            * Step Four:

                Use the Agrobacterium tumefaciens to infect citrus plants after wounding. The transfer DNA will proceed to host cells by a mechanism similar to conjugation. The DNA is randomly integrated into the host genome and will be inherited.

    Again, not a biochemist, but this sounds okay in principle. If you're talking about one enzyme, which has actually been discovered, that is a good way to do it. Most biochemical pathways involve dozens of genes, the difficulties associated with transfecting genes typically is multiplied by each gene you are transfecting. If the THC pathway involves something like 20 genes, I would guess (again, not an expert) that you're looking at something which is a project for a post-doc, not even a grad student. I'm not sure 14 years is enough time for that.

    All in all I'm extremely skeptical that one guy, even were he working for 14 years full time, could do this, though I am not about to say impossible, and could be way off on some of the above.

    What I do find impossible is that the guy did it in his spare time over a grudge and it only made shady internet news. This would be a monumental accomplishment. The guy would get several awards and would be a billionaire in Holland.

  • by ZorbaTHut (126196) on Friday December 26, 2008 @03:12AM (#26233827) Homepage

    What, you think it's a good thing that UV-radiated wildly-mutated bacteria are being used to produce "natural" flavors, while carefully-engineered processes to produce only known chemicals are shunned as artificial?

    Because if you do, I don't know what to say to you, and if you don't, then you might want to go read his post again.

    Also, you should read the post again anyway - the first chunk of "insane regulations" he mentions are actually the [i]lack of regulations[/i]. So being glad that someone could, with $5k, produce enough botulism to kill his entire university . . .

    . . . well, you really need to read that over, carefully, and this time with your brain engaged.

  • Re:Hmm. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by rtfa-troll (1340807) on Friday December 26, 2008 @04:07AM (#26233947)

    .anti-free market bullshit,

    paranoid much? he didn't say anthing "anti-free market". He criticised USDA for one thing and Monsato for another. He actually specifically criticised Monsato for interfering with a free market by using their money in order to destroy it.

  • by 4D6963 (933028) on Friday December 26, 2008 @05:34AM (#26234141)
    Yeah, so in other words it's nothing like making a chip, just programming one. Anyone can indeed do that in their garage...
  • Re:Hmm. (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday December 26, 2008 @02:04PM (#26236125)

    In absolutely free market, even the market and the freedom are commodities.

    No and you are not even fucking close. That is not what any non-anarchist scholar means by a free market - "absolutely" or otherwise. Like the GPL, the freedom political philosophers and classical economists discuss has an element of reciprocity to it. I.e., your freedom is conditional on respecting the freedom of others. The moment you or any organization steps beyond those bounds, morality and, hopefully, the governing authorities requires your submission to a system of justice. You are not using the term "free" as the GPP or any serious author would or ought. Either you are very ignorant or a lying asshole.

"Consistency requires you to be as ignorant today as you were a year ago." -- Bernard Berenson

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